Weathering the Weather

by American Forests

By Michelle Werts

Traditionally, in the U.S., August weather is described as the dog days of summer. (Fun-fact alert: The expression “dog days” goes back to the Greeks and Romans who noticed that Sirius — the brightest star in the constellation Canis Major, meaning large dog — would rise at daybreak and therefore thought it brought the summer heat.) However, with this year’s record-breaking heat waves, it feels like the dog days have been with us for months, and as a result, we’re already seeing their consequences while the heat is still upon us.

Cannibalized Corn Crops

Corn is harvested on a farm in Augusta County, Virginia, in 2008

Corn is harvested on a farm in Augusta County, Virginia, in 2008. Credit: Bob Nichols/USDA

With the mild temperatures of spring in the air, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced that a record corn harvest was expected this year, as farmers had planted the most acres of the crop since 1937. In a few short months, that prediction went horribly wrong.

On Friday, the USDA announced that it expected the corn crop to be at its lowest level since 2006. But for individual farmers, the news is even worse, as the average yields per farmer are expected to be at their lowest level in the last 17 years. And things could still get worse. Plus, there’s the ripple effect, as a majority of the corn being affected isn’t the kind that us humans eat, but the kind that livestock and poultry eat, meaning we could see an increase in meat prices early next year.

Hungry Bears

The drought hasn’t just been affecting America’s crops, but it’s also impacting our natural areas. For bears — among other animals — this has meant shriveled and dry food sources. And a hungry bear is a roaming one.

Bear rummaging through trash

Credit: Mark F. Levisay/Flickr

You may have noticed that there have been quite a large number of bear sightings in the news recently. Many biologists are attributing this to the fact that bears’ normal food sources aren’t producing, and therefore, the mammals are getting creative in their hunt for sustenance — recently, a bear in Estes Park, Colo., broke into the same candy store seven times to score some sweet stuff.

“This has been an interesting year for bears, especially in the Catskills,” Jeremy Hurst, a big-game biologist with the New York state Department of Environmental Conservation, tells the Associated Press. “In multiple communities, bears have gotten into people’s homes, in some cases even when people were at home. Half a dozen to a dozen bears have been euthanized. More have been trapped and relocated. Typically, complaints of bear damage peak in late spring, but this year, the frequency of bear complaints picked up strongly with the drought in July.”

Hurricane Season

Okay, so technically, this one doesn’t have to do with the drought, but it is weather related, so I’m going with it.

On Thursday, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) announced that the 2012 Atlantic hurricane season may produce more named storms than originally thought. In May, NOAA anticipated we’d see a “near-normal” season of nine-15 storms. Now, the administration thinks we could see up to 17 named storms this year.

“We are increasing the likelihood of an above-normal season because storm-conducive wind patterns and warmer-than-normal sea surface temperatures are now in place in the Atlantic,” says Gerry Bell, Ph.D., lead seasonal hurricane forecaster at the Climate Prediction Center, in NOAA’s announcement. “These conditions are linked to the ongoing high activity era for Atlantic hurricanes that began in 1995. Also, strong early-season activity is generally indicative of a more active season.”

Fingers crossed that these storms stay at sea and away from America’s coastlines.

The Father of Conservation

by American Forests
Pinchot with U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt, 1907.

Pinchot with U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt, 1907. Credit: Emerson7/Wikimedia Commons

Saturday marks the birthday of Gifford Pinchot, the first chief of the U.S. Forests Service. He is known as the “father of conservation” and credited for launching the conservation movement in the United States by urging Americans to preserve the past in order to protect the future. When asked by his father as a young boy, “How would you like to be a forester?” Pinchot answered, “I had no conception of what it meant to be a forester than the man in the moon … but at least a forester worked in the woods and with the woods — and I loved the woods and everything about them. … My father’s suggestion settled the question in favor of forestry.” Now, that’s what I would call loving what you do!

Pinchot traveled —no matter the cost — to learn forestry skills in a time when no American university offered a degree, or even a class, on the subject. After graduating from Yale, he took his studies abroad to France, where he began to frame his opinions on forestry. Upon his return to the United States, he first worked as a resident forester at Vanderbilt’s Biltmore Forest Estate before eventually finding his way to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, where he was named chief of the Division of Forestry. Around the same time his friend, Theodore Roosevelt, was being elected president. Then, the management of forest reserves shifted from the Department of Interior to the Department of Agriculture, and the U.S. Forest Service was created. This new service tapped Pinchot to be its first chief.

Serving just five years in office, he helped the United States to go from 60 units covering 56 million acres of forest reserves to 150 national forests covering 172 million acres. After serving as chief, Pinchot continued his forestry services by helping to set up the Society of American Foresters. And, the U.S. Forest Service’s chief is honored with a 1.6 million-acre national forest in Washington that bears his name.

This weekend, I encourage you to go out and enjoy the outdoors, whether it be in one of our nation’s national forests or not, to celebrate Gifford Pinchot and his contributions to conservation and forestry.

Happy Birthday, Smokey!

by American Forests

By Michelle Werts

Today, one of the most famous bears in the country celebrates his 68th birthday. The U.S. Forest Service and Ad Council’s famous Smokey Bear made his first appearance back in 1944 with the tagline “Smokey Says – Care Will Prevent 9 out of 10 Forest Fires.” And while Smokey’s visage has undergone many changes over the years, his basic message has always stayed the same: When in nature, we must be sure to leave it the way we found it. Here’s 68 pots of well-deserved honey to you big guy!

Changing Wildfire Policy for a Changing Climate

by Amanda Tai

I’ve mentioned in a previous post that fire is a natural part of a forest’s life cycle that helps replenish soil nutrients. It’s for this reason that wildfires are usually allowed to burn out on their own , granted that they remain at a low intensity and are far from developed areas.

Credit: footloosiety/Flickr

However, a new U.S. Forest Service directive has put a temporary hold the agency’s typical response to wildfires for the last two decades. This new directive instructs forest supervisors to act more proactively by quickly putting out wilderness fires in the early stages, while they’re still small, instead of using more manpower and equipment to monitor the fire. The hope is that putting out small wildfires will ultimately save the agency time and resources, as things like equipment, aircrafts and firefighting crews will be more readily available to tend to higher-priority fires that may arise near developed and populated areas.

This new directive is the end result of too many fires and not enough funding. Kris Reichenbach, public affairs officer for Superior National Forest, told Minnesota Public Radio that this directive aims to improve the agency’s approach to national wildfire emergencies and make better use of funding. Based on the string of huge fires that have plagued the West this summer — forcing people to evacuate their homes — the agency hopes the directive addresses issues of resource availability for catastrophic wildfires. In an agency-wide memo, James E. Hubbard, U.S. Forest Service deputy chief for state and private forestry, supported the directive, stating that “safe aggressive initial attack is often the best suppression strategy to keep unwanted wildfires small and costs down.”

I’m encouraged by the U.S. Forest Service’s plan to use their resources more effectively to stop a fire in its initial stages, but I wonder how these efforts will keep up with the rise of megafires. According to NASA scientist Dr. James Hansen, climate change is one of the major factors that intensify wildfire. In the last few years, unusually hot, dry and windy weather conditions — the products of climate change — have caused fires like the Pagami Creek Fire in Minnesota and the Whitewater-Baldy Fire in Colorado to quickly become catastrophic in scale. Such conditions are putting even more strain on firefighting resources, as fires are spreading and intensifying faster than ever. In the U.S., from 2002-2011, wildfires burned an average of 6.9 million acres annually. That’s almost double the annual average from the previous decade!

As the issue of wildfire becomes more and more complex, it’s important to take a management approach that takes all factors into consideration — development, climate change, weather conditions, etc. This is a critical time for wildfire management, especially when it appears as though these megafires are becoming the new norm.

Pesky Pachyderms

by American Forests
Elephant in Kruger National Park.

Credit: Peter Guilliatt/Flickr

When I think of elephants, big, friendly giants come to mind. This said, I would much rather prefer to enjoy the friendly giants, weighing up to 16,500 pounds and standing close to 13 feet tall, with the comfort of a fence between us. New studies show, though, that it is trees that need to worry about the destruction an elephant can do.

As stated by the Conservation Ecology Research Unit, elephants are known for their ability to uproot, debark and break branches of many savanna trees. Scientists have known the destructive nature elephants play in toppling trees in order to reach leaves growing on top branches, but it has not been until recently that they have been able to quantify the number of trees African elephants have taken down.

New technologies have allowed scientists at the Carnegie Institution of Science to determine tree loss from elephants on the savannas of Kruger National Park in South Africa. Greg Asner of Carnegie’s Department of Global Ecology and his team used a light detection and ranging (LiDAR) model mounted to their Carnegie Airborne Observatory (CAO), a flying device, to monitor the growth and height of trees in the savannas. This technology provides detailed 3-D imagery of the vegetation canopy using laser pulses as the model flies above the African savanna.

The studies showed that elephants are the primary culprits of trees destruction in the savannas in Kruger National Park: “Their browsing habitats knock trees over at a rate averaging six times higher than in areas inaccessible to them,” says the report. For two years, the scientists studied 58,000 trees and found that elephants were responsible for almost 20 percent of downed trees. The team studied other environmental factors, such as other herbivores and fire, but came to the conclusion that elephants were the major factor to blame in tree loss.

Elephants in Kruger National Park, South Africa.

Elephants in Kruger National Park, South Africa. Credit: Artem/Flickr

Also in the report, Greg Asner states how this information could be useful in managing the land in the future saying, “The elephant-driven tree losses have a ripple effect across the ecosystem, including how much carbon is sequestered from the atmosphere.” Elephants toppling trees is a natural occurrence and will continue to impact the abundance and growth of savanna trees in the future. These new studies will give park and government officials insight into what regions are being most affected and how to better manage the trees and protect them from elephants.





Carbon-rich Coastlines

by American Forests

By Michelle Werts

Grey mangroves

Grey mangroves. Credit: Brisbane City Council/Flickr

At American Forests, we’ve long recognized the importance of mangrove forests — by doing reforestation work for them and discussing them in our magazine and right here on Loose Leaf — and according to new research, protecting these forests should be seen as an affordable way to offset CO2 emissions.

Mangrove forests, which grow in the tropical waters within 30 degrees of the equator, represent less than one percent of the world’s forests, but have the capability to store approximately 20 billion metric tons of CO2. Considering that world carbon emissions are approximately eight billion metric tons per year, mangroves can be a big factor in the global carbon picture.

According to a new study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, “In most areas of the world, we find that preventing a ton of carbon emissions from mangrove deforestation is competitive (less costly) relative to reducing a ton of carbon emissions from currently regulated GHG [greenhouse gas] sources in developed countries. The estimated cost of avoiding emissions from mangrove loss is also below the recent monetized estimates of damage caused by GHG emissions.” Basically, it’s pretty cheap ($10 per ton of CO2 saved) to conserve and protect mangroves compared to many other types of forests that could offset carbon emissions.

And we need to conserve and protect mangrove forests because over the last 50 years, we’ve lost about 50 percent of our mangrove forests. Beyond their large carbon storage capabilities, mangroves are key elements of marine ecosystems, providing protective feeding, breeding and nursing areas for a variety of fish, crustaceans and other aquatic creatures, not to mention wading and sea birds. Plus, they protect our shorelines from destructive waves. So if we protect the mangroves, they’ll help protect us and other creatures. I think that’s a price worth paying.

Palms From the Past

by American Forests

Imagine taking tropical vacations to Antarctica. While that might seem like a stretch, new studies reveal that around 52 million years ago, palm trees were growing along the edge of the now ice-covered Antarctica.


Antarctica. Credit: Jennifer Pickens/Flickr

On Antarctica’s eastern coast researchers drilled a kilometer deep into the ocean floor and found layers of sediment containing pollen grains from palm trees that are relatives of modern baobab and macadamia trees. One of the members of the team, Dr. James Bendle from the University of Glasgow, tells Planet Earth Online, “In the sediments, we found fossilized pollen representing two distinct environments with different climatic conditions — a lowland, warm rainforest dominated by tree ferns, palm trees, baobab trees and a cooler mountainous region dominated by beech trees and conifers.”

Palm trees.

Palm trees. Credit: Amanda Richards/Flickr

The study suggests that palm trees thrived in Antarctica in a time when the temperature in the winter exceeded 50 degrees Fahrenheit and temperature in the summer got up to almost 80 degrees. Additional evidence of the warm temperatures comes from analysis of additional organic compounds that were produced by soil bacteria populating the soils along the Antarctic coast. The details of past warming periods and greenhouse conditions give insight into the increasing effects CO2 could have on our planet today and hundreds of years from now.

The samples come from the early Eocene period, ranging from around 34-56 million years ago, when CO2 levels in the atmosphere were more than twice as high as they are today. During the Eocene period CO2 levels are estimated to be around 990 parts per million (ppm), and today, they are estimated at 395 ppm. Of course, 34 million years ago, there were no humans experiencing these conditions. Although these extreme levels of CO2 will not be reached relatively soon, it is possible that if we continue to burn fossil fuels at the current same rate, they could be reached by the end of the century.

So what exactly do these findings say about the future? Kevin Walsh, a scientist from the 2010 expedition that uncovered these findings, says to Agence France-Presse, “It’s difficult to say because that’s really controlled by people’s and governments’ actions. It really depends on how emissions go in the future.” Though the future is not completely clear, it is apparent that CO2 levels will continue to rise, ice will continue to melt and we’ll witness phenomena not seen since before our species inhabited Earth.

A Scary Picture

by American Forests

By Michelle Werts

As the well-known saying goes, “A picture’s worth a thousand words.” Well, how about two pictures?

First, there’s this satellite image released by the NASA Earth Observatory of lodgepole pine forests near Grand Lake, Colorado on September 11, 2005.

Grand Lake, Colorado, pine beetle damage

NASA Earth Observatory image created by Robert Simmon, using Landsat data provided by the United States Geological Survey. Caption by Adam Voiland, with information from Thomas Veblen and Bill Romme.

Now, the exact same location just six years later.

Grand Lake, Colorado, pine beetle damage

NASA Earth Observatory image created by Robert Simmon, using Landsat data provided by the United States Geological Survey. Caption by Adam Voiland, with information from Thomas Veblen and Bill Romme.

Where did the green go? What happened to the forest? Pine bark beetles happened.

These rice-sized insects have been attacking five-needle pine trees across the western U.S. for the past decade, causing widespread losses to forests across the Rocky Mountains and beyond. The U.S. Forest Service estimates that 100,000 trees in northern Colorado and southern Wyoming die each day.

This is a big problem. Actually, more than big, as many scientists call the situation an epidemic. The affected pine trees provide homes for many wildlife species, food for others (grizzly bears!) and stabilize snowpacks and soil overall.

And, American Forests is committed to helping restore affected areas with our Global ReLeaf work and advocating in support of government initiatives that will help affected areas. For more on this issue and ways you can help, visit our Endangered Western Forests page.


Where’s the Water?

by Amanda Tai

The U.S. Forest Service estimates that the world’s forests sequester 2-2.8 billion metric tons of carbon annually. A new study published in Nature Geoscience indicates that evergreen forests ranging from northern Mexico to Canada took up a lot less carbon dioxide from the atmosphere during a 2000-2004 drought period, dropping 30-293 million metric tons below normal levels. And, according to the study, this might just be the beginning: Forests in the western U.S. could be facing a 100-year drought.

Just check out this map that shows the current drought situation in the U.S. The destructive impacts of drought are clear with this year’s catastrophic wildfires in Colorado and the ones happening now in Texas, Utah and California. But drought has even longer term impacts that will last longer than one hot, dry summer season. Severe drought may actually convert western evergreen forests into scrubland by the end of the century.

Trees, like all living things, need water to be healthy and functional. I know that I certainly don’t feel well when I’m dehydrated. When trees don’t get enough water, it greatly impairs their ability to sequester carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Water helps facilitate the leaf development process and the greater the leaf surface area, the greater the ability to sequester carbon. Also, as trees die, the carbon dioxide that is stored within them is released back into the atmosphere. This is bad news not only for forest ecosystems, but the atmosphere.

The research team at Northern Arizona University School of Earth Sciences and Environmental Sustainability that led the Nature Geoscience study thinks that drought may become the new norm. Researcher Christopher Schwalm said the current trends of extreme temperature and droughts could last decades or even a century as a result of global climate change; and drought is just one of the many impacts we have started to see as a result of global climate change. Schwalm noted that although trees are somewhat amenable to change, the type of forests we see in the western U.S. could drastically change over the next century thanks to drought conditions.

Volcanic Beauty

by American Forests

This Wednesday, marks the 96th anniversary of two of Hawaii’s most prized national parks: Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park and Haleakalā National Park, both of which were established decades before Hawaii was even a state. Back in 1916, only one park was actually created to represent the combination of volcanic areas on the islands of Maui and Hawaii. It was not until 1960 that the two islands volcanic wonders were divided to create two separate national parks. Here are some of the each parks highlights.

Lava cove in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.

Lava cove in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Credit: John Hyun/Flickr

Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park, named for what else but its famous volcanoes:

  • The park is located on the southeastern edge of the Big Island of Hawaii.
  • The active volcano Mauna Loa is the most massive mountain on Earth when measured from the seafloor at 33,000 feet.
  • The park’s most recent volcanic activity occurred at the small volcano known as Kilauea, which means “spewing, much spreading.”
  • With lava flowing at an average rate of 800-1,300 gallons per second from the currently erupting volcano Kalauea, more than 500 acres of new land have been added to the island of Hawaii since the eruption began in 1983.

Haleakalā National Park:

  • This park stretches across Maui’s southern and eastern coastline and is home to Maui’s highest peak.
  • Haleakalā is Hawaiian for “house of the sun.”
  • The park is home to the rare Haleakalā silversword, a plant endemic to the islands that only grows in a 2,471-acre area at an elevation of 6,890 to 9,843 feet.
  • The park surrounds and includes the Haleakalā crater, a massive shield volcano that forms more than 75 percent of Maui.
Haleakala National Park.

Haleakala National Park. Credit: Peter Kemmer/Flickr

Both parks have been named by the United Nations as an International Biosphere Reserve — and Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park is a World Heritage Site — due in part to their diverse ecology and native species. But these species have been facing grave challenges from invasive species and animals. The parks have made strong efforts to prevent this destruction from invasive weeds and feral pigs by fencing off the native species in the parks to protect them.

Over the years American Forests has had a variety of planting projects in Hawaii. This year we will be teaming with the Hawaiian Silversword Foundation, an organization dedicated to restoring native plants and ecosystems, to plant 6,000 trees in the Waihou Spring Forest on Maui. Hopefully these plantings and efforts in the future will help to keep Hawaii and its famous national parks healthy and diverse for years to come.